From a March Madness stunner to a perfect season spoiled, these five sports upsets were as improbable as they were thrilling.
Everyone likes a David vs. Goliath story. The scrappy underdog, against all odds, prevails over the insurmountable favorite. In sports, the story line is particularly potent. The unpredictability of play leads to surprising outcomes on a regular basis. Upsets make sports endlessly fascinating for viewers. You never know what can happen.
Some upsets have not just surprised but shocked the sports world, taking a place in our collective consciousness for years and even generations. The following five sports upsets are some of the most memorable of all time.
1. UMBC topples #1 Virginia
In the history of the NCAA basketball tournament, number-one seeds making it to the second round has been a foregone conclusion. In fact, it’s one of the safest bets in sports. Number-one seeds were 135-0 when the number-one Virginia Cavaliers took the court against the UMBC Retrievers on March 16, 2018, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Not only were the 31-2 Cavaliers a heavy 20.5-point favorite, but they were the overall number-one seed and favorite to win the whole tournament.
The Retrievers (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) came into the game with a respectable 24-10 record, but since it was as a mid-major, most of its wins were against far less talented teams than Virginia. Not two months prior, the Retrievers had lost by a whopping 44 points to Albany. Getting blown out by Virginia seemed all but written in stone.
And yet, the Retrievers kept pace with the Cavaliers in a low-scoring first half. They went into the locker room knotted at 21. The Retrievers’ head coach must’ve delivered one of the best half-time speeches of all time, because coming out of the half, the Retrievers were a dominating force. They didn’t just scrape by the number-one seed Cavaliers; they eviscerated them, scoring 53 second-half points to win the game 74-54.
Although UMBC got knocked out of the tournament in their next game, their win over Virginia is arguably the single greatest sports upset of all time.
2. Appalachian State silences the Big House
The start of every college football season sees major programs squaring off with mid-major opponents and even FCS (the equivalent of minor league teams in college). These games are warm-ups for the big schools and paydays for the small schools. They typically result in wildly lopsided scores. Essentially, the game is supposed to be over before the end of the first half.
In 2007 the Michigan Wolverines, a perennial and historic college football power, entered the season as the number-five-ranked team in the country, with a good shot at winning the Big Ten. The Appalachian State Mountaineers were coming off back-to-back FCS National Championships. Vegas sports books didn’t even place a betting line because of the expected lopsided result.
At the end of the first quarter, Michigan had a one-touchdown lead. In the second, however, the Mountaineers scored three touchdowns to take a 28-17 lead into halftime. This was obviously surprising, but you probably wouldn’t have been able to find too many people at the game who actually thought the lead would hold. In the third, Michigan closed the gap to five points, and in the fourth added two field goals to take a 32-31 lead. Crisis averted, right?
Nope. The Mountaineers countered with a FG of their own to regain the lead in the final minute. The Wolverines got into FG range with one 46-yard pass from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham to set up a 37-yard FG attempt in the closing seconds. What happened next is partly why the game lives in the memories of college football fans over a decade later. Mountaineers safety Corey Lynch got a good jump on the snap and stretched out to successfully block the field goal, picked up the ball and ran it downfield as time expired. You’d be hard pressed to find a more shocking sports upset in the world of college football.
3. New York Giants spoil New England’s perfect season
Any NFL team that makes the Super Bowl is a worthy competitor for the big stage, but to say the result of Super Bowl XLII between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants was expected would be a lie. The Patriots, behind the stellar QB play of Tom Brady, came into the game with a perfect 18-0 record, which included the first-ever 16-0 regular season. The Giants, on the other hand, were looking to become the first NFC wild card team to win the Lombardi trophy, after squeaking into the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
The Patriots opened as a 12-point favorite, a substantial margin for a Super Bowl. The game was a low-scoring defensive affair most of the way through. By the end of the third quarter, New England was clinging to a 7-3 lead. The teams traded touchdowns in the fourth, elevating the Pats to a 14-10 lead with less than three minutes in the contest.
It looked as if the lead would hold, but on third and five with only roughly a minute remaining, Giants QB Eli Manning eluded three defenders and tossed a prayer downfield. Giants wide receiver David Tyree pinned the ball against his helmet and came down with it. The play is now simply known as the Helmet Catch. The Giants would go on to score and take a 17-14 lead with only 30 seconds remaining, a lead that would hold.
Super Bowl XLII is one of the most memorable football games of all time — it spoiled a perfect season in the most improbable fashion.
4. “Do you believe in miracles?”
In terms of American sports history, the Miracle on Ice is almost undoubtedly the most iconic and surprising sports upset. Going into the 1980 Winter Olympics, the Soviet Union hockey team had won a staggering four gold medals in a row, and five out of the last six — pure dominance from a group comprised almost entirely of pros and seasoned veterans. The United States hockey team? A bunch of amateurs. Yet the United States showed up in the group stages, winning or tying all their games. Still, no one expected the U.S. to defeat the Soviets in the medal rounds. It shouldn’t have even been close.
The teams traded goals in the first period, but the Soviets took a 3-2 lead going into the third. Miraculously, the Americans came out and not only tied the game but took the lead with 10 minutes left to play. What followed was a tense and shocking final minute that not even the New York crowd would’ve expected to go their way.
In the final seconds, color commentator Al Michaels delivered the most famous statement in American sports history: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
What some may not know or remember is that the U.S. still had to play Finland in the final game. Due to the round-robin format of the event, if the U.S. would’ve lost, the Soviets still would’ve retained the gold medal. Of course, the U.S. took home the gold, defeating Finland in a comeback 4-2 victory.
5. Buster Douglas knocks out Mike Tyson
No one could beat Mike Tyson. In fact, no one could even knock him down. In his first 37 fights, Tyson had knocked out 33 opponents en route to becoming the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion. His fight versus James “Buster” Douglas on February 11, 1990, was supposed to be just another routine victory, probably by knockout. Although Douglas had a 29-4 record going into the fight, he was a 42-1 underdog. Again, no one could beat Tyson.
Douglas came in prepared, though. Throughout the early and mid rounds, the pair were evenly matched. But at the end of the eighth round, when Tyson knocked Douglas to the ground, it appeared the fight would end in the ninth. Instead, Douglas got a burst of energy and swung the match in his favor. In the 10th round, with Tyson obviously hurt, Douglas landed a series of jabs and a mighty uppercut to send Tyson to the floor — for the first time in his whole career. Out of sorts, Tyson staggered to his feet, but it was too late. The ref called the match, and Douglas was the new heavyweight champion, defeating a boxer who’d seemed he’d never go down.